It has a 63 score at Metacritic which is generally favorable.
Dylan Harper (Justin Timberlake) is a graphic designer at a “blog” that got over six million hits last month – and he just broke up with his girlfriend.
He’s emotionally unavailable. She’s emotionally damaged. From the meet-cute, you know how things will end.
Friends with Benefits isn’t as clever as it wants to be, but its likeable stars take us on an enjoyable journey.
Friends with Benefits (FwB) has that.
There’s the meeting and the developing friendship in Act I, the “benefits” relationship in Act II ends with the expected break-up, and Act III is all about learning lessons and getting back together.
In addition, FwB has an excellent supporting cast in Richard Jenkins, Jenna Elfman, Woody Harrelson, and Patricia Clarkson.
Will Gluck, who directed and produced, also did Fired Up! and Easy A, so he knows what he’s doing.
What’s critical in a rom-com is that we have to like the main characters and we have to want them to be together.
I honestly can’t think of a single Justin Timberlake song and I wouldn’t recognize an N’Sync song if I heard it.
That said, I have seen him act in Alpha Dog, Southland Tales, Black Snake Moan, The Social Network, and Bad Teacher (In Time is on my Netflix list). There’s just no denying that the man has talent, and it’s on display here. His Dylan Harper is imminently likable from the opening moments of the movie.
I watched the first seasons of That 70s Show, so I knew Mila Kunis. I’ve watched her transition to more adult roles (let’s face it: she was the best thing about Max Payne), and she’s terrific. Her daring, intelligent, wounded Jamie Rellis is beautiful and likeable all on her own.
Together, they have great chemistry.
The movie makes sure that we know they are genuinely good people. They have friends. They have positive work relationships with co-workers. They have families. We see them treat other people with respect and decency.
Perhaps most interestingly, the script makes a point of gradually revealing to us how the characters go to their unavailable, or damaged, states. We (the audience) learn it as the characters learn about each other.
When Jamie’s mother, Lorna (Patricia Clarkson), bursts into their lives, we learn that Jamie never knew her father and is worried that she’ll wind up like her mother, moving from relationship to relationship without ever finding a real connection. We learn, when Dylan does, why Jamie might be emotionally damaged.
When Dylan invites Jamie to come to Los Angeles for a July 4th weekend with his family, we meet his sister Annie (Jenna Elfman), and his dad (Richard Jenkins), and learn that Dylan’s mother abandoned him when he was very young. He grew up needing a speech therapist and a math tutor, and now is watching his dad slip away mentally as Alzheimer’s sinks its fangs into Mr. Harper’s mind. We learn, when Jamie does, why Dylan can be emotionally unavailable.
What sets FwB apart is its self-awareness. The characters exist in a world where rom-coms exist. They have seen them. They tease each other about acting like characters from specific sitcoms and rom-coms.
However, that’s also FwB’s weakness. The movie just isn’t as clever as it wants to be.
As I intimated when I described the three-act story arc, FwB’s story is predictable. All the gender roles are standard. It’s up to Dylan to sweep Jamie off her feet with “some Prince Charming shit.” It’s the actors and the characters that make the movie lively and energetic.
Just don’t expect any surprises.
Although the script makes sure that every shotgun goes off by the end of the third act, and I say that as a compliment, you know how the movie is going to end. FwB is far less surprising and fresh than Gluck’s previous directorial effort, Easy A.
Sometimes you want a non-challenging comedy that pushes the right buttons.
For me, Friends with Benefits filled that niche.
Just don’t expect it to do more.